One of the hallmarks that sets college basketball apart from the professional game is turnover – not giveaways on the court, but roster turnover. Take the reigning Atlantic 10 men’s basketball champion Saint Joseph’s Hawks, for instance. Last year’s group won 28 games, claimed the program’s second conference title in three seasons, and reached the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
However, entering 2017, not a single member of that title-winning starting five was on the court.
These are certainly not your ever-so-slightly older sibling’s Hawks.
And on the opening night of conference play, one bad step shelved the Hawks’ leading scorer for the remainder of his junior season.
Shavar Newkirk was in the midst of one of the finest early-season runs in recent memory, averaging 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 35 minutes per game as SJU’s starting point guard. The native of New York City knew it was his time, and all the work he had put in during the offseason was manifesting itself in Atlantic 10 and Big 5 weekly accolades and early plaudits as the front-runner for the league’s Most Improved Player award.
“I knew that after losing DeAndre’, Isaiah, and Aaron, it would be my time,” Newkirk said. “I have a lot of confidence in myself, and put in a lot of hard work in the gym in the offseason with my father, Sharied, and with Coach [David] Duda. I just honed my skills and watched a lot of film.”
On December 30, the Hawks kicked off their Atlantic 10 slate with a home matchup against George Washington. The Colonials used their size early, opening up a 12-point lead on the back of a massive advantage on the glass. However, SJU climbed back into the game in the closing minutes of the first half, outscoring GW 8-2 over a two-minute stretch that culminated in a steal and a fast break layup from Newkirk.
In the final seconds of the half, Newkirk came away with another steal, his third of the game and his second in as many possessions. With a free run to the basket, he could get the Hawks within four, heading into halftime with all the momentum you could possibly imagine.
That’s when it happened.
“I didn’t think something serious had happened,” he said. “I just thought that I didn’t have my steps correct, and that I had just tweaked my knee or something and that I was going to be able to play. But when I hopped to the sideline and fell, and then couldn’t get up, that’s when I knew it was something bad.”
Fans and teammates had hoped for the best when Newkirk went down, but when he joined his team on the bench during the second half, the brace on his knee indicated that his night was finished. Two days later, his season was as well, when an MRI confirmed a torn ACL in his left knee.
“At first I didn’t know what to think,” he said of the moments following the injury. “I just cheered my team on, and I was really proud of them that they went out there and continued the little spark that I helped start and got the win.”
That’s right; without their top scorer, the Hawks fought back to tie the game early in the second half, and despite trailing by two with less than three minutes to go, the Crimson and Gray came away with a 68-63 victory in the ultimate display of the University’s “The Hawk Will Never Die” credo.
In the weeks since his injury, Newkirk hasn’t let the fact that he can’t play make him any less a member of the squad. You can still find him at practice every day, dressed not in sweats, but in his regular practice gear. Remaining as much a part of the team as possible is important both to Newkirk and his teammates.
“I felt that if I was to be away from the team, then it wouldn’t feel as if I could have as much of an impact,” he said. “Since I’m not playing, me being a part of the team – just watching practice, or watching film, or doing some weightlifting – it lets them know that I’m still there.”
“Shavar’s leadership is present because he’s always around,” senior captain Brendan Casper said. “Obviously he was our best player, our go-to guy, and having him around in the locker room, in the weight room, and at practice, and hearing his voice is always helpful for the young guys.
“It's great for Shavar that he's doing that and keeping his head up. He could easily be down and want to do his own thing. But he's got a whole year next season, and we're looking forward to that. It's good to have his presence for team chemistry next season as well,” Casper said.
“We treat each other like brothers,” Newkirk said. “They check up on me every day, they check up on Checco [Oliva], we check up on one another to see how we’re doing and critique the game. You grow as a team when nobody is looking; when we’re by ourselves, we talk to each other, we see what we can work on, and we see what we need from each other, and that’s good, when you have that accountability.”
In addition to the support shown by his teammates, his fellow students have lent a hand as well; not because he plays on the basketball team, but because it’s the kind thing to do.
“Folks help me out, like if they see me going up the stairs, or just asking how my day is, instead of just talking about my injury,” Newkirk said with a smile.
This is the first injury of this magnitude that Newkirk has suffered in his basketball career, but despite not having personal experience dealing with a major injury, he is not alone as he goes through his recovery and rehabilitation process. He has his teammates, coaches, and the support staff at Saint Joseph’s at his side, of course, but the junior guard also enjoys the support of a pair of familiar faces back home. It’s been a tough season for players from the Bronx, as Connecticut forward Terry Larrier – a former AAU teammate of Newkirk’s – and Hofstra guard Desure Buie have also gone down for the year with torn left ACLs. The pair both let Newkirk know they were thinking of him.
“Terry reached out to me, telling me the steps he took, and his advice was to grow as a person off the court and get my academic performance as strong as it can be, and when basketball presents itself again, take full advantage of it,” he said.
“Desure reached out to me on his own and told me the same things, and that God gives battles to the strongest soldiers, and that everything would be all right.”
Any injury is a setback, and when it comes in the middle of your finest season to date, it can alter the trajectory of your entire career. For Shavar Newkirk, it might do just that; if the dedication he showed last offseason and the support network behind him are any indication, he might come back even better.